So Brave!

I used to be so brave.  Or stupid.  Or young.  Or perhaps all of those things rolled up together, each egging the other on like a group of boisterous teens drag racing at 2:00 a.m. on a school night, oblivious to–or perhaps dismissive of–all potential consequences, near and far.

On our (leisurely) drive to our current campground in Tennessee, I was lucky to get good radio reception for NPR. I love NPR. It makes me so much smarter, at least for awhile, until I forget most of what I’ve heard. Frances Jensen, a neuroscientist-researcher-author-mother, was being interviewed about her book on the developing brain (The Teenage Brain).  She was inspired to delve into the subject when her children were teenagers and she desperately wanted some clue as to why they behaved so incredibly, well, stupid sometimes.  It turns out that until you are in your mid-20’s, the brain is simply not all there. Especially the prefrontal cortex, which is the part capable of taming the wild side.

I sure did recognize myself when she talked about teenagers’ high risk-taking and impetuous decision-making tendencies.  In my wild years, I went camping in this general area of Tennessee.  On one hike I climbed to the top of a beautiful waterfall, seeking the promise of an even more beautiful view from on high.  Before the climb, I passed a sign reading “Danger! Do Not Climb Past This Point!”  It went on to say how many people had died so far that year by not heeding its sage advice.  It gave me pause–hmmm, I wonder who the people were behind those numbers–but only a pause.  Upon reaching the summit, I promptly slipped on the mossy rocks and nearly slid off the edge of the falls, straight through that beautiful horizon.  Brave?  Dumb?  Oblivious?  All of the above.

Nearly forty years later, I find myself at this lovely state park a ways east of that waterfall.  Dawny and I are enjoying our walks through the campground and surrounding area, including a gentle stretch of riverfront.  But, as usual, I avoid paths that go through wooded areas.  Dawny tugs at her leash when we come across tempting openings into the woods–I wonder what her prefrontal cortex looks like–but I generally pull her back towards civilization and try to ignore the way she looks at me over her shoulder with distinct disappointment.  I’m just too afraid of bears and snakes and wild pigs and who knows what else coming at us while we are far from any possible help.

The other day, though, our luck and our pace shifted.  We came across a park ranger who was heading into one of the wooded paths to pick up litter and check on things back there, and he let us accompany him.  We walked along a lively creek and came upon a bunch of wild turkeys.  In another part of the park, we followed a ridge trail that wound along high above the river.  In spots, if you were to slip and fall, you would be smashed on the rocks below.  Then drowned.  Then probably eaten by a bear.  I had to be careful not to look too closely over the edge, as it set my stomach churning and my imagination shooting off into dark, illogical corners.

Finding a spot not too close to the edge with a nice break in the trees, I was treated to a breathtaking picture.  Blue-gray mountains in the distance, framed by pouffy white clouds in a crystal blue sky, forest all around, and the churning river below.  What a treat!

Maybe what I used to think of as brave was no more courageous than what I’m doing now, even though I was able to do so much more then.  Now, I practically have to have an escort to stray very far off the same path that, as a youth, I would charge up without a second thought.  Now, I’m much more aware of my own, personal horizon and its steady approach, regardless of which path I happen to be dithering along.

Well, at least I’m out here, following my dream.  It’s a pretty tame dream, and pretty safe.  But its mine, and I love it.  That might be what bravery is now, at this point of life.  My brain is reverting back to some semblance of that teenage condition as my prefrontal cortex surrenders in exhaustion from everything I’ve put it through over the years. It’s throwing up its little brain hands and squeaking in a grand-motherly voice, “Fine!  Take me where you will!  Just don’t speed, eat your vegetables, wear practical shoes . . . .  And please, do enjoy that view.”

On Bears and Muffins

A dear friend mentioned recently that she is facing her fear of public speaking by speaking in front of a church group she attends.  She was so happy that it truly made a difference in getting over that fear.  This reminded me of how powerful a tool that is.  Take your specific fear and do it, again and again.  You go, girl!

I fear snakes, and bears, and spiders.  So here I am… planning to leave my nice solid home and head off into the wilds.

I fear other dogs attacking my dog, Dawny, or Dawny attacking another dog.  This has gotten so bad that I rarely take her for walks any more and just let her get her exercise in our fenced yard.  So off we go… in an 8×24 foot home where frequent dog walks outside of our tiny, safe abode will be a necessity as constant as a revolving door.

I fear getting hurt by other humans.  So… I’ve left the brick fortress I’ve hidden in for so many years and am venturing into a world with shifting, invisible, and even nonexistent boundaries, populated by total strangers.

Sounds a bit crazy.

Until you realize that ax murderers and others of their sort come in all shapes and sizes and faces, and you never truly know if you have had one under your very own roof or even in your bed for years.  After all, those horrible perpetrators of gruesome crimes usually have a family of some sort, back home, in their own safe fortress.

And Dawny may well blossom in this mobile lifestyle, and acclimate to her new social life and its attendant expectations.  She may rise to meet her own challenges with an uncommon grace (can you hear the hope in my voice?).

As for snakes, bears, and spiders, just look at those stories you see once in a while of someone discovering a gigantic snake in their toilet or in their cellar!  And consider those poor bears who have found it necessary to invade suburbia, breaking into brick houses for that honey nutt muffin or fresh baked blueberry pie.

Yep, best to just face those fears down, because whether you are standing–frozen–or moving with the wind, they will find you.  For they live with you, right there in your heart.

You go, girl!